The best advertising strikes a chord with consumers and BT Sport’s publicity for its FA Cup coverage has neatly captured the mood around this season’s competition.
In the advert, common grievances about football's oldest competition – not enough giant-killings, an unwanted break from fantasy football, a halting of league momentum – are aired. An oversized FA Cup mascot then appears and silently implores the grumblers to pay it due respect via a mischievous action: a man in the barbers has his beard shaved off; someone washing a car has it dirtied; a diner has his spaghetti bolognese tipped onto a white shirt. It ends with the slogan: don't mug off the cup.
This year more than most, the slogan holds true. With the quarter-finals upon us this weekend, the FA Cup has a lot going for it.
The giant-killings by Newport County, AFC Wimbledon and Millwall may have been confined to the earlier rounds, but the abundance of less familiar names in the last eight means there are plenty of reasons to look forward to its conclusion.
Manchester United and Manchester City are the representatives of the Premier League’s upper echelons, yet the lack of others of their type is notable – this season marks the first time in five years that there are only two teams from the top division’s Big Six in the quarter-finals.
Between them the Manchester clubs have won 17 FA Cups and been involved in four of the last eight finals, but of the other six sides left standing this year only Wolves have ever held the trophy aloft.
That means on 18 May we have the possibility of that very rare occurrence: a first-time winner. Brighton, Crystal Palace, Watford, Millwall and Swansea are all still in with a chance of following in the footsteps of Wigan in 2013 and producing the sort of surprise the FA Cup is famed for.
The Latics’ 1-0 win over Manchester City and Portsmouth’s 1-0 defeat of Cardiff in 2008 remain the only instances of clubs outside the Big Six claiming the title in the last 23 years. The open nature of 2019’s edition means there is a heightened chance of a shock occurring.
There is another factor which should help prevent another big side winning the trophy. Aside from the motivation of making history, the league positions of the other contenders should make the FA Cup their priority.
Wolves and Watford are seventh and eighth in the Premier League respectively, Crystal Palace and Brighton are currently five points clear of the drop and heading in the right direction, while Swansea are comfortable in the middle of the Championship – well clear of relegation and some way off of play-off dreams.
Only Millwall, who are battling the drop in the second tier, can really be said to have a bigger focus than the FA Cup. But in their case the Lions’ successes in the competition could well override any pragmatism. They play Brighton on Sunday looking to extend their unmatched giant-killing record by registering a 26th victory over a side in a higher division.
Millwall have knocked out a Premier League team in Everton already this season and also taken the scalps of Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester in recent years.
While Swansea could be forgiven for being on the end of a Manchester City thrashing like Schalke, Burton, Burnley and Chelsea have experienced this season, the indications are that the rest are up for the fight.
Watford boss Javi Gracia, who welcomes Crystal Palace to Vicarage Road tomorrow, raised eyebrows by making seven changes to the team beaten 3-1 by City in the league last weekend. Although he dismissed suggestions that his decision was informed by what came next, the fresher legs of forwards Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu will certainly help against Palace.
“In my opinion we’ve competed well against a very good team and now we can focus on the FA Cup,” he said on Saturday. “We will try to get a good result and carry on in that competition.”
Palace manager Roy Hodgson was too frustrated after a derby defeat by Brighton to look ahead, but the former England boss did speak at length in defence of the FA Cup before his side’s win over Doncaster in the previous round.
“My hope would be that we continue to cherish the FA Cup,” he said last month. “We continue to value it and we don’t consistently make comparisons because these competitions are what they are and they also have their importance.”
Having knocked Tottenham out in the fourth round and stunned City 3-2 at the Etihad in the Premier League in December, the Eagles have shown they have the mettle to go one better than their FA Cup final defeat at the hands of Manchester United in 2016.
Despite being level on 33 points with Palace following their 2-1 win at Selhurst Park, Brighton manager Chris Hughton, who was relegated with previous club Norwich, remains wary of the Premier League trap door ahead of his side’s visit to The Den.
“I know what staying in the cup means to the supporters and hence that’s why we’ve given everything we can in the cup and we will do on Sunday,” he said. “Making sure we’re in this division next season in my thinking is the most important thing. Any progress we can make in the cup is a brilliant bonus for us.”
Perhaps the most likely to break up the Big Six’s stranglehold of the FA Cup is the side who sit seventh in the Premier League. Wolves, who drew 1-1 with Chelsea on Sunday, have already knocked Liverpool out of the competition so the visit of United shouldn’t faze them.
“We don’t separate the competitions,” said Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo last month. “We do the same things, trying to go to the last detail, which can help us compete better.”
With most competitors certainly not mugging off the cup, the traditional elite face a fight to continue their hegemony this weekend.